We’ve done the research, surveyed our team of locals, and put together a list of the best free things to do in Chicago! This article is part of our Exploring Chicago Series, where we cover the best things to see, eat, and do in the Windy City. Follow this series to stay up to date on the hottest spots Chicago has to offer (like the best breweries in Chicago!)
Not only does Chicago’s Midwest kindness create lasting friendships, but its businesses also extend that same warmth to their patrons. By offering free and exciting activities, businesses are able to bring together the community. While you could spring for pricier adventures, there is an often-overlooked network of fun that doesn’t cost a dime.
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- Free Museum Days
- The Chicago Museum Trifecta
- Explore Chicago Parks
- Free Tours
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Free Museum Days
If you find yourself looking to fulfill your thirst for knowledge, Chicago is the perfect place for you. With many different cultures swirling in this Midwest melting pot, the Windy City is rich in history and artistry.
There is no better way to spend a rainy date night, friendly hangout, or solo evening than exploring this mecca of education. Take advantage of these free museum days to learn more about the vast and exciting city you’ve chosen to call home.
The Chicago History Museum
The Chicago History Museum is the first stop if you want to get a feel for the heritage of the city. It depicts all the struggle and strife that took place in order to make Chicago the great city that it is today. With specified free days, such as the 4th of July, it offers an informative and fascinating look into the Windy City.
The Museum of Science and Industry
The Museum of Science and Industry is filled with excitement and discovery. Check out the Whispering Gallery and other hands-on experiences that will give you the thrill of childhood science experiments. This museum offers free admission every Tuesday!
Art Institute of Chicago
When you’re in the mood to reflect, the Art Institute of Chicago is the best place to be. This is a popular stop for many Chicagoans looking to get their art fix. Featuring a café and wine bar (which isn’t free, but is worth mentioning) and world-famous exhibits. Peruse the work of the most famous artists in history, including Van Gogh and Monet. This museum is free every Wednesday from 5-8 pm, and is located within walking distance of Millennium Park (home of ‘The Bean.’)
Museum of Contemporary Photography
If you find yourself looking for inspiration, be sure to visit the Museum of Contemporary Photography. With free admission year-round and new exhibits every couple of months, you’ll find the art refreshing every time you visit.
The Chicago Museum Trifecta
Located in the heart of downtown is the trifecta of Chicago museums: the Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum, and the Shedd Aquarium, all within walking distance of each other. Spend the day hopping from one museum to another while soaking up knowledge and experiencing world-class collections.
The Adler Planetarium
The Adler Planetarium transforms bustling city goers into quiet observers of the vast unknown. Learn about the effect light pollution has on Chicago’s night sky, and how locals can take part in reducing it. On select days each month it is free to Illinois residents, so jump on the opportunity to ‘escape to the stars!’
The Field Museum
The Field Museum is a must-visit for nature lovers and Jurassic Park fans. It features Sue, the world’s largest and most complete T. Rex skeleton. With free days in January and February, the Field Museum is a great place to warm up during a cold winter afternoon.
The Shedd Aquarium
The Shedd Aquarium boasts a colorful array of sea creatures and interactive shows. Shallow pools give visitors hands-on experience with stingrays, starfish, and other aquatic animals. Free for Illinois residents on specific days in January, February, and June, you won’t want to miss this opportunity.
For specific free museum days, read more here.
Explore Chicago Parks
Chicago is full of green spaces and parks to frolic through. These spaces were designed for locals and tourists to escape bustling downtown city life without much travel. These parks are world-renowned, well-maintained, and filled with sculpture art— the best part? They’re absolutely free!
If you feel like stretching your legs, get some afternoon cardio by exploring Grant Park. Spanning 319 acres along the lakefront, this designated recreational area is comprised of smaller parks, one of which is the famous Millenium Park. While it is free to wander the grounds and see the sights in the off-season, Grant Park also hosts many popular events that charge admission (including Taste of Chicago and Lollapalooza!)
The most well-known park in Chicago is surely Millennium Park. Located within Grant Park, spend your sunny afternoon taking selfies in the reflection of the Cloud Gate (also known by the locals as ‘The Bean.’) Head to the south end of this park to enjoy the fresh scent of blooming buds in the gorgeous Lurie Garden.
After, watch digital faces flash by on the Crown Fountain, an installation by artist Jaume Plensa. Or, if you’re more of a “lay in the grass and look at the sky” type of person, check out the free music series at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, designed by famous architect Frank Gehry.
Named after Illinois legend, Abraham Lincoln, you’ll find yourself spending a lot of time in Lincoln Park. Extending 6.5 miles along the lakeshore, this beautiful park includes the Lincoln Park Conservatory, Cultural Center, and Zoo.
During the holiday season, the ZooLights are a must-see! There is plenty to do for an active individual, as Lincoln Park boasts a plethora of free amenities. Check out the skate park, walking and jogging trails, golf courses, baseball fields, and more.
Garfield Park is a 30 minute train ride to the west of downtown, but it is well worth the wait! Catch the Green Line to the Conservatory stop, named for the Garfield Park Conservatory. With approximately 120,000 plants, you could easily spend an entire day floating through the tropical paths.
For a more hands-on approach to learning about Chicago, check out the various walking tours offered throughout the city. Ranging from architectural tours for the history buffs, to ghost tours for the spooky lovers, there is a walk for everyone. Although not completely free, these tours operate on a “pay-what-you-like” system.
Check out all their available tours at: https://freetoursbyfoot.com/chicago-tours/
Revolution Brewing Company
After a long day, we can’t think of anything better than a cold, crisp beer. Why not sip on a local brew while taking a free backstage tour of how it was made? Look no further than Illinois’ largest independent craft brewery, Revolution Brewing Company. With a beer for every palette, from their hibiscus ale to their Oktoberfest, Revolution provides both quality beverages and a super fun brewery tour.
Lake Effect Brewing
For the more inquisitive beer drinker, we recommend checking out Lake Effect Brewing. With free brewery tours on Saturday and Sunday, you can take a first-hand look at what goes into their Botanic Series.
Featuring beers that drink like a Gin & Tonic, such as their Juniper Saison, and their Barley Wine Amber Ale that is aged in bourbon barrels. Lake Effect is always exploring new and exciting brewing ideas. If that sounds like a fun weekend trip, you can sign up for it right here: http://www.lakeeffectbrewing.com
Now that you have a lay of the land and a few ideas for the weekend, you can use your free time to explore the city! With so many free things to do in Chicago, there’s no reason to compromise your budget in order to have a good time.
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Rebecca is a freelance writer with eight years of journalism experience. She recently graduated with a BA in Communications and a minor in journalism. She currently bartends in downtown Chicago and spends her free time exploring the city and making connections.