Planning a vacation to Chicago? Our insiders put together a list of our top free things to do in Chicago.
If you find yourself blowing through a ton of cash while you are visiting Chicago, you may want to consider finding some things that you and your family can do for free. After all, you’ll want to save some funds to invest in deep-dish pizza and a couple of famous Chicago-style hotdogs!
Our local experts put together a list of some of the best free things to do in Chicago, all great suggestions that can help round out your vacation itinerary.
A Way to Save on Ticketed Chicago Attractions
We know that this blog post is about listing the FREE things to do in Chicago, but, are you looking to visit a few of the ticketed attractions during your vacation?
Consider using a Go Chicago Card – which includes free admission to dozens of the area’s most popular attractions – all for one low price.
A Go Chicago Card can save you up to 45% off combined admission vs paying at the gate.
Take pleasure in the Navy Pier atmosphere without spending money. Pack a lunch for the family to eat on the dock. As you stroll along the pier, people-watch and take pictures of your family in front of a beautiful Lake Michigan landscape. It’s the most visited free attraction in Chicago for a reason!
A popular Uptown neighborhood beach located in Lincoln Park that offers patrons lots of amenities including free Wi-Fi, Montrose Beach is also home to a 15-acre bird sanctuary that hosts migrant songbirds during the fall and spring migration seasons (April through May and August through October). Recreational swimming is also offered as well.
It might not get as much ink as its counterparts in New York or San Francisco, but Chicago’s Chinatown is no joke. Take a walk through the distinctive neighborhood and visit spots like the Chinatown Gate, Nine Dragon Wall, and Ping Tom Memorial Park.
Make sure to get dumplings before you go – they aren’t deep-dish but they’re delicious.
Lincoln Park Zoo
Nestled in Lincoln Park, this 35-acre zoo is an urban refuge for creatures from around the world. Admission is free (although you do have to pay if you want to ride the train or the endangered species carousel), so you can explore the many animal exhibits to your heart’s content.
The Lincoln Park Zoo is home to over 1,100 animals, representing around 200 distinct species. You’ll get to meet critters as diverse as polar bears, snow monkeys, gorillas, turtles, and many more.
Don’t forget about a stroll along the Nature Boardwalk, an exhibit designed to showcase the “urban ecosystem.”
Chicago Cultural Center
Head over to the Chicago Cultural Center for free entertainment at one of the most visited attractions in Chicago. This city architectural landmark featuring two stained-glass domes provides plentiful free public events.
Events include artist showcases, music, performances, films, and dancing. Check out the center’s website before your visit to plan ahead.
The Hyde Park Art Center
For the art lovers coming to visit the city, this is one of the can’t-miss stops. The Hyde Park Art Center is always free and open to the public and hosts visual works from a variety of the world’s top artists. While some exhibits are permanent, others rotate throughout the year with a number of other museums in the country. With this in mind, people should make a point to come back at different times to see everything that the art center has to offer.
Sharing a picnic at Grant Park, the 220-acre urban park inspired by the gardens at Versailles, is an easy thing to do in Chicago with the whole family.
Buckingham Fountain stands at the heart of the park, shooting 1.5 million gallons of water out of its 150 jets.
Looking for something to do in the evening? Colorful lights and music make Grant Park a great place for a stroll in the dusk.
Enjoy free music and family activities while exploring the renowned architecture and landscape design at Millennium Park. Be sure to scope out the astonishing Pritzker Pavilion!
In the summer, the park offers the Family Fun Festival from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., including a reading circle and a mix of live music and interactive dance performances.
Even if you’re not able to make these festivities, pack a picnic lunch to sit and people watch in this Chicago hotspot.
A small, 2.5-acre garden located at the southern end of Millennium Park, this charming oasis is filled with a wide variety of plants that keep the garden looking fresh and vibrant year-round.
It’s a relatively recent addition to the Chicago park scene, but it’s well worth a stroll through.
Visitors can take guided walks, enjoy lectures and demonstrations, and during the summer months, explore festivals and other special events. Be sure to bring a camera to this beautiful attraction!
The Money Museum
Ironically enough, the Money Museum at Chicago’s Federal Reserve Bank offers free, guided tours that depart at 1 pm, Monday-Friday. Have your picture snapped with old and rare coins and cash, including $5,000 and $10,000 bills.
Located at 230 South LaSalle Street, tours at the Money Museum generally last about 45 minutes.
Ok, so it’s not quite free, but with tons of games that cost only five cents to play, Nickel City is pretty darn close.
Grab a fistful of nickels and play arcade classics like Skee-Ball and Bozo Buckets in order to stockpile tickets that you can redeem at the prize counter.
It gets better. Nickel City is on this list because it does feature classic games like Pacman, Ms. Pacman, Contra, Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat that are all free of charge to play!
Window-shop and sightsee along the Magnificent Mile. This famous walk on Michigan Avenue has over 460 stores and boutiques.
Kids will enjoy hanging out in stores like The American Girl Place Chicago, which houses the entire collection of American Girl dolls, or The LEGO Store with over 400 branded products.
Start at the famous Bloomingdale’s Fashion Headquarters and sightsee as you wander past the John Hancock Observatory, the Historic Water Tower, the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building, and finally, the Michigan Avenue Bridge.
Cat & Mouse
Opened in September 2008, Cat & Mouse is full of board games, kids’ games, family games, party games, strategy games and classics like chess, backgammon and checkers.
Located at 2212 West Armitage Avenue in Bucktown, Cat & Mouse hosts a free game night every Tuesday from 6:30 pm-10:00 pm where kids and parents can try out any game they can get their hands on as the store’s stock room is turned into a family living room.
The Chicago Gallery News
This is the place to go for people who want to see what is happening with regard to festivals, exhibits, and concerts during their specific vacation time. There are numerous gallery maps, a calendar of various art walks, and a list of popular monthly events that may be happening during their visit. There are even free guided tours offered by Chicago Gallery News throughout the year. Don’t miss anything happening during your visit to Chicago.
Chicago is one of the largest cities in the country and this is far from everything the city has to offer. Check out some of these free attractions during any vacation to Chicago and see what everyone has been talking about. There is something for everyone in this metropolitan city.
Let’s Recap on How to Visit Chicago for Cheap
So there are some fun ideas for free things to do in in Chicago.
Remember, if you want to add some attractions to your itinerary that normally cost money, consider purchasing a Go Chicago Card.
With the Go Chicago Card you get free admission to dozens of attractions all for the one low price of the pass. You can save up to 45% off combined admission costs vs paying at the gate.